EU charter may outlaw routine spying

Electronic surveillance needs a regulatory framework to protect citizens' privacy and to stop international lawlessness...

Spying on electronic communications by international agencies is a serious invasion of privacy according to proposals put before the European Parliament (EP) in Strasbourg this week. If accepted, the proposal would outlaw spying across European borders by member and non-member nations. It could then find its way into the new Charter for Human Rights, due in October.

MEPs were asked to endorse proposals put forward by Mr Graham Watson (Lib Dem), chairman of the EP committee on Citizens’ Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs at a meeting on Tuesday this week. Watson says that treaties and rules drawn up to protect human rights nearly half a century ago have failed to keep up with technological advances and they no longer protect the fundamental human right to privacy following the advent of satellite and other high tech spying techniques.

However, an executive body of the EP on Thursday failed to reach final agreement on Watson’s proposals. The body -- the 'Presidents' Conference’ made up of eight MEPs -- proposed a temporary Committee be set up to look at a mandate, yet to be decided. Watson expects the mandate will focus on the issue of privacy and expects a decision by 4 May.

The decision to set up the temporary committee is a disappointment said a spokesman for Commissioner Vitorino, European Commissioner in charge of Justice and Home affairs. He told ZDNet News the EP gave only unclear references to the proposals during this week’s meetings. "The committee discussed the issues vaguely, but we should be clear this must be completed by June if it is to meet the October deadline for the new Charter of Human Rights."

The revised Charter is necessary, according to Watson, because the existing framework "falls short of what the citizens of Europe are entitled to expect, since they do not protect them from interceptions carried out by a Member State of which they are not nationals." Watson recommends that interception of digital communications must "have a legal basis, be in the public interest and be strictly limited."

If the proposals are implemented, spying by international agencies on diplomatic, commercial or personal communications would be outlawed unless specific protocols, were followed. Countries including the USA would be asked to end "all forms of systematic and general espionage by third countries vis-a-vis the activities of the Member States of the Union, its institutions and its citizens."

Watson explained that there are no existing regulations governing electronic eavesdropping. "It is high time that a protocol was set up to provide some regulation for these matters -- there is currently international lawlessness on this matter. What my proposals set out to achieve is some sort of democratic recourse for the use of electronic surveillance. There is no legal authority to regulate electronic eavesdropping and I think it is time the European Union and the US try and set up some sort of framework which would regulate these matters in some way. It is in the interests of all citizens that this be done."

Is electronic surveillance an invasion of privacy or a breach of human rights? Is there a need for an international framework to oversee such activity? Go to the TalkBack forums and have your say online.

ZDNet will continue to follow this story as more information becomes available.

ZDNet France, ZDNet Germany and ZDNet US contributed to this report

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